February 23, 2016 4:08PM

More Mixed Results from Louisiana’s Highly Regulated Voucher Program

New research on Louisiana's voucher program revealed mixed resultsYesterday, the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (Tulane University) and the School Choice Demonstration Project (the University of Arkansas) released four new reports examining the Louisiana Scholarship Program's impact on participating students' test performance and non-cognitive skills, level of racial segregation statewide, and the effect of competition on district-school students. Here are the key findings:

  • Students who use the voucher to enroll in private schools end up with much lower math achievement than they would have otherwise, losing as much as 13 percentile points on the state standardized test, after two years. Reading outcomes are also lower for voucher users, although these are not statistically different from the experimental control group in the second year.
  • There is no evidence that the Louisiana Scholarship Program has positive or negative effects on students’ non-cognitive skills, such as “grit” and political tolerance.
  • The program reduced the level of racial segregation in the state. The vast majority of the recipients are black students who left schools with student populations that were disproportionally black relative to the broader community and moved to private schools that had somewhat larger white populations.
  • The program may have modestly increased academic performance in public schools, consistent with the theory behind school vouchers that they create competition between public and private schools that “lifts all boats.” [Emphasis added.]

The positive impact on racial integration and evidence that competition improved district-school student performance are both positive signs, but the significant negative impact on the performance of participating students is troubling. (Ironically, the evidence suggests that the voucher program may have improved the performance of non-voucher students more than the voucher students.) That said, although the impact on student performance is negative, the second year results show improvement over the first year. 

What caused the negative effects is a topic of intense debate. Until NBER published a study on Louisiana's voucher program last month, all the previous random-assignment studies had found neutral-to-positive effects on students' test performance and student outcomes such as the likelihood of graduating high school and enrolling in college. Several education policy researchers (myself included) suspect that Louisiana's high degree of regulations drove away higher-performing private schools, leaving only the most desperate private schools that were willing to accept intrusive government regulations in order to slow or reverse declining enrollment. Louisiana's voucher program forbids private schools from charging more than the value of the voucher, requires an admissions lottery rather than the school's own admissions standards, and mandates that schools administer the state standardized test. The findings of the latest study are consistent with this view, although they are not conclusive:

Less than one-third of the private schools in Louisiana chose to participate in the LSP in its first year, possibly because of the extensive regulations placed on the program by government authorities (Kisida, Wolf, & Rhinesmith, 2015) combined with the relatively modest voucher value relative to private school tuition (Mills, Sude & Wolf, 2015). Although it is only speculation at this point, the Louisiana Scholarship Program regulatory requirements may have played a role in preventing the private school choice program from attracting the kinds of private schools that would deliver better outcomes to its participants. 

However, other researchers, including the authors of the latest study, offer other plausible explanations. For example, it's possible that the performance of private-school students suffered on the mandatory state test because the schools' curriculum was not yet aligned with the state curriculum. If so, merely adjusting to the new test (rather than actual gains in learning) would explain at least a part of the improvement in performance in the second year. It's also possible that reforms improving district and charter schools may have made the private schools look relatively worse. However, the authors not that there were negative effects outside of New Orleans (where the reforms over the last decade have been the most intense), so this does "not completely explain [the negative] results."

Next Friday (March 4th) at noon, the Cato Institute will be hosting a policy forum exploring whether Louisiana-style school choice regulations are helpful or harmful. Neal McCluskey, director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, will moderate a discussion featuring two of the recent study's authors, Dr. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas and Dr. Douglas Harris of Tulane University, along with Michael Petrilli, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and yours truly. The forum will be followed by a sponsored lunch.

Readers interested in attending can RSVP at this link.

If you can’t make it to the event, you can watch it live online at www.cato.org/live and join the conversation on Twitter using #SchoolChoiceRegs.